Waterloo Station in London is the busiest rail hub in the UK, with over a quarter of a million people using the station each day. Perhaps you are stuck there now? Waiting for a train, with a few hours to kill. The station itself has an interesting history, but there is a lot to see within a ten-minute walks of the station. So rather than hanging around overpriced cafes, why not check out these 15 sights that are sure to keep any history buff entertained while waiting for a train.
You can avoid being one of the crowd staring endlessly at the screens and explore the local history instead.
Built in 1848 in the Lambeth borough of London, Waterloo Station was originally planned as a station on the line into central London, rather than a terminus. It replaced the earlier Nine Elms Station, which had seen a sizable increase in travellers from the south and south west of England. An Act of Parliament in July 1845 led to its creation, with the demolition of over 700 houses to make way for the new station, named after nearby Waterloo Bridge. The intention was to continue the lines into central London, something which was cancelled due to financial constraints in 1847.
Extra tracks, platforms and ticket offices were added on in a piecemeal fashion, with the station becoming increasingly confusing for visitors. Of its 16 platforms, only 10 were numbered, some of which were duplicated. In 1898, an underground station was built instead, and it was accepted that Waterloo would remain as a terminus. By 1900, more land was bought and work began on the ‘Great Transformation’. Work continued throughout World War I and the new station was formally opened in 1922 by Queen Mary.
The station has continued to develop over the years to meet the needs of an ever changing society and is now the largest and busiest station in the UK, with over 100 million people using it each year.
If you’re worried about missing train updates while you are exploring, this National Rail Live Departure Board updates constantly with train times and platforms for trains from Waterloo. so you can check it from your phone whilst on the move.
If you have luggage – leave it at Excess Baggage, which you will find at the SouthBank exit (6). They are open from Monday to Sunday, 07h00 to 23h00.
Interesting Things to See at Waterloo Station
Before heading out, have a look around the station itself.
Often ignored, this memorial to World War I has many intricate details as well as memorial plaques just inside the archway.
The main entrance to Waterloo Station, known as Victory Arch, is at Exit 3 if you are already inside the station, or on Cab Road if you are outside it. Grade II listed and built of Portland Stone, it was carved by Charles Whiffen in 1919-1922, with input from staff of the London South West Railway as a memorial to the 585 staff who lost their lives in World War I. It is topped by a sculpture of Britannia holding the torch of liberty, under which is a clock in a sunburst.
On either side are two sculptural groups, one dated 1914 and dedicated to Bellona, the Roman goddess of war. On the other side is a group dedicated to Peace and dated 1918. The archway is inscribed with ‘Dedicated to the employees of the Company who fell in the war’ and medallions around the arch name Belgium, Italy, Dardenelles, France, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the North Sea. Bronze plaques inside the arch list the names of the fallen employees. It is best to try to ignore everything else around this grand entrance, as the passage of time has not been kind to the area.
Battle of Waterloo Memorial
This memorial to the Battle of Waterloo is a relatively recent addition and has a replica of the Waterloo Campaign Medal.
If you walk up the stairs inside the station to the balcony area, a relatively recent addition from 2012, you will find a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Battle of Waterloo. It was unveiled in 2015 to mark 200 years since the battle, in a ceremony led by the 9th Duke of Wellington and attended by descendents of those who fought and died in the battle.
The memorial is an enlarged replica of the Waterloo Campaign Medal, the first such to be given to every soldier at the battle, irrespective of their rank. It was also the first campaign medal to be issued to next of kin of those who had died. It depicts Victory sitting on a plinth, with the word ‘Wellington’ inscribed above and ‘Waterloo, June 18, 1815’ below. Beneath the medal are the words of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington; ‘My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.’
Most people walk past the memorial without even noticing, but it is worth seeking it out.
Few people notice this archway which is now hidden by the retail balcony, but which is a colourful early 20th century memory of the now defunct London South West Railway.
Still on the balcony near the Waterloo Memorial and opposite the clock, is the curved arch which once served as the main road entrance, but is now mostly obscured by the balcony. A stained glass window of the LSWR crest is surrounded by inscribed banners to locations served by the original London and South West Railway and which include (left) Middlesex, Surrey, Bucks [Buckinghamshire], Berks[hire], Sussex, Isle-Wight; (right) Hants [Hampshire], Wilts[hire], Dorset, Sonmerset, Devon, and Cornwall. It is intersting to note that by the time Waterloo was being built, the LSWR had actually ceased to exist, but the window and design were still incorporated into the finished building.
The Waterloo Clock
Striking and prominent, there are few more famous clocks in London than this one.
Best viewed from the balcony, the Waterloo Clock is perhaps the most famous symbol of the station and “under the Waterloo Clock” one of the most famous meeting places in London. This four sided clock, with each side over 5 feet, has hung above the concourse since the early 1920s and was built by Gents of Leicester, a company which had began trading in 1872 and which had made electric clocks for railway stations around the world. The area underneath the clock is now marked with a huge blue spot telling you it is the area under the clock, which takes away some of the charm, but it is still worth a visit.
2 – 5 minute walk from Waterloo Station
St. Johns Church, Waterloo (2 minute walk)
Built in 1824 by architect Francis Octavius Bedford, it was built in a Greek style inspired by his love of Greek scholarship. Bombed in 1940 and left exposed for ten years, the restoration was completed in 1950 and the church rededicated as the Festival of Britain church. Most of the Victorian features are long gone and the interior is now a spacious, open rectangular room with large windows and a simple balcony. The reredos is replaced by 1950s murals and the overall impression is one of light and simplicity.
The church has a large graveyard which has won multiple awards as a wildlife sanctuary and green space, filled with plants to counteract the pollution which comes from Waterloo Station. With a thriving community, the church is open to visitors and the graveyard a small sanctuary of peace and nature in the busy city.
The Old Vic Theatre, Lambeth (3 minute walk)
The Old Vic has been rebuilt inside its original exterior. Photograph © Fin Fahey
Founded in 1818 as the Royal Coburg Theatre under the patronage of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, unfortunately Charlotte died in 1817 and Leopold left England to become King of the Belgians. The lease was taken over in 1833 and a new patron sought, with the Duchess of Kent, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, the mother of the future Queen Victoria approached. By 1835, the theatre was known as The Victoria Theatre. Rebuilt inside in 1871 and renamed The Royal Victoria Palace, The ‘Old Vic’ has been in use since then. The building is Grade II listed due to its architectural quality and rarity.
An all day, late-night bar is in the basement and open to all, including non-ticket holders. If you know you will have time to spare in advance, you can always book a behind the scenes tour, which will cover its 200 years of history and culture.
Roupell Street Conservation Area, Waterloo (5 minute walk)
Roupell Street is a fine example of modest Georgian housing and one of few left in London. Photograph © Google Maps
Roupell Street and the streets around it are the best preserved area of modest Georgian housing in London, and a visit is like stepping back in time to the 19th century. Originally marsh land, the area was developed by John Palmer Roupell, a gold refiner, who developed the land for artisan workers, building modest two storey terraced housing. The area was managed by a single landlord until the 1970s when the houses were sold off, but fortunately in 1976 the properties were listed and made a conservation area.
In 1829, a year before completion, one of the houses burnt down when the workmen’s pot used for making the pitching boiled over and set some straw and wood alight. The properties weren’t insured as they were unfinished, and the remaining properties were swiftly insured. Metal insurance plates were afixed to the outsides, many of which can still be seen today.
The King’s Arms pub is still there, and is as close to a Victorian pub as you can find today, albeit serving Thai food instead of traditional British fare.
The street has featured in numerous TV series and films and is said to be the most filmed places in London.
Leake Street Arches, Waterloo (5 minute walk)
Colourful, vibrant and ever changing, the Leake Street arches are also known as The Banksy Tunnel.
More one for the modern historian, this tunnel is nevertheless a fascinating place for a walk, and is actually underneath Waterloo Station. It is named after Dr. John Leake, an 18th century doctor who founded the General Lying-In Hospital (one of the country’s first maternity hospitals), nearby. The arches were created with the construction of Waterloo and for many years were used by wine and whisky merchants. Until 2008 the road was used for vehicular access as it was owned by Eurostar, but when they moved to St. Pancras Station instead, ownership of the tunnel passed to Network Rail, who made it pedestrian only.
In May 2008, the elusive street artist Banksy held a Cans Festival in the tunnel, inviting graffiti artists from around the world to turn this once drab, brick space into an onslaught of colour. Safe to explore during the day, although avoid it after dark, you can walk the length of the tunnel and see artists at work producing amazingly skilled street art. The art changes almost daily so there is always something new to see.
Various bars and clubs lead off the tunnel, including one called ‘Draughts’ where you can play board games if your train is delayed for ages.
7 – 11 minute walk from Waterloo Station
Southbank Book Market, Southbank Centre (7 minute walk)
Hidden underneath Waterloo Bridge, the Southbank Book Centre Market is the only outdoor book market which is open daily whatever the weather. Selling antique and second hand books from classic to contemporary, as well as maps and prints, this is the perfect place to while away some time browsing. If you are at Waterloo over a weekend, then the Southbank Centre Food Market is also on and ideal for any foodies.
London Necropolis Railway, Lambeth (8 minute walk)
All that remains of the London Necropolis Railway is this impressive building now called Westminster Bridge House.
By the 18th century, the population of London was growing rapidly, and the existing graveyards were filling up, with many bodies having to be exhumed to make way for new ones. The cholera epidemic of 1848 led to bodies stacked up and exhumed corpses rotting in the open air. The Burials Act of 1851 forbade the burying of the dead within central London. and a proposal was made to use land at Brockwood Cemetery in Surrey, over 20 miles away from London and unlikley to be absorbed by any urban sprawl.
The London Necropolis Railway was established to transport bodies and mourners to Brookwood, but was met with some reluctance, with objections being raised about the dignity of the transporting mourners on the same train as potentially immoral corpses, and of mourners having to take a full day off to visit the graves of their loved ones. Nevertheless, it was the best solution at the time and in 1854 the London Necropolis Railway was opened, with its London station at Waterloo. It transported over 200,000 corpses to Brookwood Cemetery until 1941, when the station was destroyed in the Blitz.
All that remains is the second of the Necropolis stations on the Westminster Bridge Road, which was built in 1902 and designed to be as unfunereal as possible. Unfortunately the building is privately owned, and all you can do is admire the facade from the other side of the street, and peer through the railings to see the remnants of the ticket office for mourners and the driveway.
Westminster Bridge, Westminster (9 minute walk)
One of the most famous sights in London – the Houses of Parliament behind Westminster Bridge.
The original Westminster Bridge opened in 1750 and was replaced with the one we see today in 1862. It is now an iconic sight, to see the Houses of Parliament across the bridge, and it is always packed with tourists. The views down the Thames are impressive even on a grey day and if you have the time, it is well worth a visit. Allow plenty of time to walk across the bridge as you will be fighting your way through crowds of people taking selfies, listening to the bagpipe player and ambling slowly across. If you have even more time, walk across to Parliament Square where you can admire the famous statues, or visit either St. Margaret’s Church or the Supreme Court; both of which are free so it won’t matter if you have to hurry round them.
St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark (10 minute walk)
Inside the light and spacious St George’s Cathedral. Photograph © Saebou
The Grade II listed building of St. George’s is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark and was the first church in London to be elevated to cathedral status after the English Reformation of the 16th century. It was designed by the English architect Augustus Pugin, famous for his revival Gothic architectural style, who was also the first person to be married in the church after its completion in 1848. Badly bombed during World War II when the whole roof came off, it was rebuilt and re-opened in 1958.
Now with a thriving and diverse congregation, the cathedral is open daily for casual visitors or for guided tours. With an interior of high arches, richly coloured stained glass windows and an overall feeling of simplicity, it is well worth a visit if you have the time.
Florence Nightingale Museum, Lambeth (11 minute walk)
The museum is laid out in sections which refer to the stages in her life. This one show the ‘gilded cage’ of her early years.
Situated in St. Thomas Hospital, the Florence Nightingale Museum explores the life of this extraordinary woman who revolutionised nursing during her time in the Crimea, as well as looking at her life before and after. Packed with original artefacts, including one of her lamps, it is a fascinating place to spend some time. Bear in mind that you do have to pay an entrance fee (currently £9) so ensure you have enough time to do it justice – I would allow at least an hour. Read more about a visit to the museum >>
Imperial War Museum, Southwark (11 minute walk)
The Imperial War Museum is in the old Bethlem Hospital. Photograph © Imperial War Museum
Founded in 1917 to record the work and sacrifice of the UK and Commonwealth throughout World War I, the IWM now covers all conflicts they have been involved in since then. Located in its current building since 1936, it is a huge museum with both permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions. It is idea for visiting if you have time, as it is free, so you can dip in and out and not feel like you are wasting money by only visiting for a short time while waiting for your train.
Permanent exhibitions include the First World War Galleries, Turning Points which looks at the interwar years from 1934 to World War II, and an incredibly moving Holocaust Exhibition which stays with you long after you have walked away.
The museum also houses a cafe and shop and is open daily except for over Christmas bank holidays. Be sure to store your luggage at Waterloo Station (Excess Baggage, exit 6) as you will be unable to take it in to the galleries with you.
Visiting London? If you are planning a trip to London or looking to explore more of this capital city, check our London Travel Guide for History and Adventure Seekers.